Music Patterns, Russian Dolls, Fractals, and Recursion

Written: January 25, 2011

Science Daily reports that the brain can efficiently compress musical information which may sound complex to the ear but is reducible to simple patterns.

I like this idea of simple repeating patterns “hidden” in the complexity.  It makes me think of Jackson Pollock and fractals, as explained in this 2001 Discover magazine feature:

“Fractals may seem haphazard at first glance, yet each one is composed of a single geometric pattern repeated thousands of times at different magnifications, like Russian dolls nested within one another…In Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, as in nature, certain patterns are repeated again and again at various levels of magnification. Such fractals have varying degrees of complexity…Fractal patterns may account for some of the lasting appeal of Pollock’s work. They also enable physicist Richard Taylor to separate true Pollocks from the drip paintings created by imitators and forgers. ”

The mention of Russian dolls brings to mind 1) Cédric Klapisch’s 2005 film Les poupées russes, and 2) the idea of embedding and, by extension, recursion in language.

If you pop “recursion” into Google, you will most certainly come across a linguistic argument between linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky and anthropologist Daniel Everett.   It is a sticky debate where lots of people confound language and Language and grammar and Grammar and all sorts of other words you think you would know until you realize there is a capital letter version of that word to complicate things.

Recursion is defined as “the process of repeating things in a self-similar way“; in language and linguistics, it is the embedding of words and phrases within sentences, like Russian dolls which are similar but not identical to the other sized Russian dolls around them.

An example sentence:

“Imagine your best friend’s girlfriend’s apartment, where you fell asleep on the sofa that night after her sister’s surprise birthday party, totally destroyed by a hurricane…”

To oversimplify the debate, Chomsky has argued that recursion is the fundamental property of human language.  Everett, however, claims here  that, after studying the language and culture of the Pirahã people in the Amazon for over 30 years,  there is evidence of a language that does not use recursion devices.  Instead, he argues, the Pirahã people just say complex things in separate sentences.

We know that the brain can compress complex input if it is reducible to simply patterns.  On the practical side, this suggests the importance of 1) the single, solid “idea pattern” which can be repeated on various scales, and 2) the single, sold “idea” seed, like a musical note, a drip of a color on the canvas, a letter in the word, etc. used to build that pattern, 3) the creative process itself which converts idea seeds into patterns, and patterns into more complex patterns, and 4) the simultaneous abilities to ravel and unravel, crypt and decrypt, embed and debed.

As a final practical note, a language learning exercise will often take a single vocabulary word (#1) or even grammar structure (#2) and express (#3) the word or structure in various creative contexts, like sentences and paragraphs, while simultaneously attacking complex input (#4) and deconstructing back to the original #1 or #2.   The next frontier, thus, is better defining and prioritizing these 1-4, especially the tasks for #3, creative construction.


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